Looking Back (Part 6)

The news that ‘only’ 14,700,000 American children are now living in poverty {{1}} prompted this look back at my reporting for NPR about the emotional development of children, an important but often unrecognized aspect of life for some children growing up in poverty.  Food, healthcare, shelter and education matter, but love and affection are vital if a child is to have a decent chance of becoming a functioning adult {{2}}.

Here, briefly, are the stories of Lisa, Roy and Mary, three young people who, for a host of reasons, were growing up without the emotional supports they needed.

Merrow: “OK, let me give you a spelling test. How do you spell ‘cereal’?
Lisa: S-E-I-A-L-A.

She told me that she had lived in ‘13 or 16’ foster homes.  Lisa was 9 years old when, at the end of a long conversation, I gave her an impromptu spelling test..

Merrow: How do you spell ‘sugar’?
Lisa: Sugar. S-H-U-G-E-R.

At the time, Lisa was living in a Texas mental institution for children.

Merrow: How do you spell ‘couch’?
Lisa: Ooo! Couch. C-  No.  K-A-O-W-C-H.
Merrow: How do you spell ‘soda’?
Lisa: S-O-A-D.

Lisa was a charmer.  At one point she asked me what I was going to do with the recording.  When I told her it was for a radio program, she exclaimed, “Oh, yuk.” She  paused and then added, “Don’t put it on AM. Put it on FM.”

I took the bait. “Why,” I asked?

You can hear the laughter in her voice. “Because we usually don’t even listen to FM. We only listen to AM {{3}}.”

Her doctor said that Lisa had been abandoned at age two by her natural parents. They left her with some relatives, who in turn gave her to other friends, who then left her on someone’s doorstep; those people eventually brought her to the Department of Human Resources.

At the end of the conversation, Lisa asked me if I liked her. I said yes, of course.  Then she asked me if I really liked her…and pulled her dress up over her head, an incident I wrote about recently.

Sexual behavior like that was also part of her sad history, a ‘survival’ tactic she had apparently learned early.  Her doctor told me that she would go to school without any underwear and would do cartwheels in the playground.  She was, he said, looking for affection–albeit in the most inappropriate way.


Roy: I smoke, and I’m 18. Can’t read. Can’t read or write
Merrow: Not at all?
Roy: No, I can’t read or write at all.

At the time of this conversation, Roy was an involuntary patient at a Texas mental hospital for adolescents {{4}}.

Merrow: How about those words up there on the board? Can you read any of those?
Roy: No, Just too hard for me. Really, I can’t read those.
Merrow: There’s a word up there. Can you read that one?
Roy: B-E?
Merrow: Yeah, what does that say?
Roy: BE?
Merrow: That’s right. How about the word that comes before it, T-O?
Roy: T-O? To?  I think it’s ‘TO.’  Yeah. (laughs)

A few years earlier Roy had been arrested and jailed in Austin for a minor offense. In jail he attempted suicide.  Later, when the police found him living in a park (‘like an animal,’ his doctor said), he was confined to the mental hospital, where he had not caused any problems..

Merrow: How about the word that comes before that, H-O-W?
Roy: ‘TAH’?
Merrow: No, it’s an H
Roy: ‘WHO’?  I don’t know. I can’t really do it right. I ain’t much in reading.
Merrow: How about O-W? O-W is what you say when somebody punches you.
Roy: “OW” (laughs)
Merrow: So, now put the H in front of it. What have you got?
Roy: Um, ‘HOW’?  HOW!

Psychotropic drugs like Thorazine, Mellaril, Prolixin, Haldol and Moban (and sometimes electroshock {{5}}) were the normal treatments in Roy’s institution and in most public mental health facilities.  He was taking a daily dose 800 mg of Thorazine when I met him.

Merrow: Yes. You could read those three words in a row. Go ahead.
Roy: Uh, ‘How to be.’

Early in our conversation Roy yawned and asked me, ‘How long will you keep talking?’

Merrow: Ready to stop?
Roy: Yeah, I think I am.
Merrow: Okay, thanks a lot.
Roy: Okay.

He paused, and I waited. After a short time, he began again; the words spilled out.

Roy: I mean, I didn’t tell you the whole story. Um, when I was nine years old, my step-dad and my mom met each other and, well, they used to knock me around all the time, my step-dad did.

When Roy was 14, he finally felt big and strong enough to turn on his abusive stepfather. He defended himself with a baseball bat…and he ended up in a juvenile institution, based, he said, on the testimony of his stepfather.


Sometimes I feel so down at heart
I feel like I might fall apart
But then these words come back to me,
‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’

19-year-old Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder.  Like Roy, she was confined to a Texas state mental hospital, but this was her third confinement.  She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape.  (It was that story that got my program banished from the airwaves in Texas.)

She told me that she had not told her doctors about being raped, but he was aware of her sexual activity. “I know that she has had some–she’s quite flirtatious with some of the guys back on the ward. I don’t have any personal knowledge of her having had sexual activity with anybody around here, while she’s here. But it might have happened,” the doctor said.

At one point Mary said someone–meaning me–needed to massage her ‘sore’ shoulder. Later she asked me to come closer to tell her if she had ‘sleep in her eyes.’  I declined both invitations.

Music mattered very much to Mary, who broke into song during our conversation, including this song she made up on the spot to end the interview.

This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.
It’s the last time I’ll tell you
Just how much I really care.
This is the last song–
But I’ll sing more later on.
Right now it’s time for lunch
And I think I’m gonna be gone.

One was nine, one 18 and the other 19, but the conversations–not just the spelling tests–are eerily and sadly similar.  If you listen to them in their entirety, you will discover even more connections: their strong need to be heard, to feel a connection, to matter–and their shocking histories of mistreatment by those closest to them.  Sexual and physical abuse is another tie that binds them.

Roy and Mary told me stories they said they had not told their doctors. My heart went out to all three, but especially to young Lisa, who seemed destined to travel the awful road that Mary was on.

The two NPR programs aired in 1978. To meet Lisa and her doctor, click this link.  To get to know Roy and Mary and their doctor, click here.

When we said goodbye, Roy assured me that he wasn’t going to attempt suicide again.

Roy: I think I can make it.
Merrow: Want to shake on that?
Roy (laughs): Yes
Merrow: Okay
Roy: I guess that’s all I can say now. Bye.

I met them 36 years ago. Today Lisa would be 45, Roy 54 and Mary 55. I hope they made it somehow.  At the time, we asked the hospitals to keep us informed, but that did not happen.

The doctors treating Lisa, Roy and Mary were not optimistic about their patients. Lisa’s doctor feared she would end up as a prostitute or in serial, abusive marriages. Roy’s best bet, his doctor said, was vocational remedial education and, perhaps, a job as a janitor or greenhouse worker.  Mary’s future was even darker because of her apparent addiction to street drugs.

I would not be allowed such access today, but I am virtually certain that, if I were, I would meet today’s versions of Lisa, Mary and Roy in every public mental health facility.

Our world has gotten better in many ways, but, when it comes to caring for children and the least fortunate among us, we have such a long way to go.  Some people seem to think that some combination of dedicated teachers, ‘no excuses’ schools and more tests will pull these children through.  Perhaps those folks should have been watching Ken Burns’s film, “The Roosevelts,” for a better understanding of what government can accomplish in times of crisis.


[[1]]1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/us/politics/census-report-poverty-income.html?_r=0 The poverty rate for children under 18 declined last year for the first time since 2000, the census bureau said, and the number of children in poverty fell by 1.4 million, to 14.7 million.[[1]]

[[2]]Children growing up in affluence or middle-class comfort are not exempt from emotional deprivation and neglect, of course. Poverty makes it tougher for well-meaning adults to care for their young, but certainly not impossible.[[2]]

[[3]]I think Lisa had somehow figured out that NPR was ONLY on FM. Maybe she couldn’t spell, but she was clever and smart.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Austin State Hospital was the first state facility of its kind built west of the Mississippi. In 1856, the governor of Texas signed a bill providing for the establishment of the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. Construction started in 1857, and the first patients were admitted in 1861. The facility was renamed the Austin State Hospital (ASH) in 1925.

Today, the original building serves as the administration building for a modern, innovative facility providing psychiatric care to a 38-county region in Central Texas. ASH admits over 4000 patients in a fiscal year, with about the same number of discharges, and has an average daily patient census of 292. The focus of recovery is stabilization for people with  acute psychiatric illness and support of their return to the community. ASH provides care through three large services – Adult Psychiatric Services, Specialty Adult Services, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services. … Child and adolescent programs offer services to children to the age of 12, an adolescent girls unit, and an adolescent boys unit.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Two percent of the cases, the director of that hospital told me.[[5]]

Looking Back (Part 5)

(For the past few weeks I have been traveling down memory lane and then posting entries on my blog. Memories aren’t sequential, I’ve learned. As evidence of that, here is one from my year away from college.)

I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember-but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case ‘fan’ is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the ’50s I spent hours starring in imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the rightfielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was 20, an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals and a brief – very brief – chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.

In 1961 I had taken a year off from Dartmouth and was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for The Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February of ’62, largely for being a pain in the neck.{{1}}

Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.

I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventure. And I had plenty of them: I met hundreds of interesting, lonely people, including a couple of gigolos in New Orleans, got run out of a small town in Idaho by roughnecks who amused themselves trying to run me over, spent a night or two in jail and talked my way into Disneyland and into the Seattle World’s Fair on opening day. But no memory shines as brightly as spring training of 1962 at Al Lang Field.

Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could, in fraternity houses, once in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas, (my choice, not theirs) and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag. Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.

I walked right in–no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.

Suddenly, one of the Cardinals spotted me at the edge of the field. At 6′ 2″ and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”

I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked. “Kansas,” I answered truthfully, and his expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.” I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. Hitched, I told him.

“What position you play?”

Rightfield. I answered truthfully, and third base, I added, not so truthfully, because that was Eddie Mathews’s position. He squeezed my shoulder. “You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”

I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential!  I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a longball hitter! For a few minutes I was 11 or 12 again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.

Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep, I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, and met some guys who let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day–wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand! In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade and trying to “hit the long ball,” But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game, anyway.

Spring training was relaxed and informal in ’62, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings. but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.

I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to “some of the guys” in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never finished.

“Who the f**k  is that?” a loud gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the f**k out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh. I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did.

Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave.

“Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”

I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball-player.”

Every fan’s story should have a hero, and mine is no exception, although it took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. {{2}} No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I am certain that he had not seen major league potential in me; I’m sure he believed that I was a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late. I wish now that I knew who he was…and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.


[[1]]1. Which I wrote about in part one of this series[[1]]

[[2]]2. Dick Groat hit .294 that season.  Clemente hit .312 and won a Golden Glove.  Mazeroski hit .271, while Eddie Mathews, my childhood hero, hit .265, drove in 90 runs, and walked 101 times.  All four made the All-Star team.  (Time was I actually knew statistics like that. No longer–I had to look it up.)[[2]]

Looking Back (Part 4)

(For the past couple of weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as an education reporter. Here’s another segment.)

I left the warmth and security of NPR in 1982, but in early 1985 I was unemployed and, to put it mildly, nervous about my future.  The 7-part documentary series I had spent 2 ½ years working on, “Your Children, Our Children,” had not resulted in a flood of job offers for me, but it had won an Ohio State Award {{1}}.  I went to Columbus for the ceremony, and, before that event was over, I had an invitation to try my hand at reporting on television.  It happened because of Doug Bodwell, then Director of Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization over both PBS and NPR.

Not only was Doug a big deal at CPB, but he was also a big guy, standing about 6’ 8”, which turned out to be just as important.

I was hanging out by the wall in a large room full of journalists when I saw Doug standing in the center of the room, towering over everyone. With one hand he was motioning to me to come over; with the other he was signalling someone else. I made my way through the crowd, and Doug introduced me to the other person he had been beckoning: Linda Winslow, then Deputy Executive Producer of the NewsHour.  “Linda, John should be reporting for you,” Doug said.  Linda asked me if I had some story ideas.  I didn’t, but of course I said that I did. She asked me to send them to her, which–once I came up with some–I did.  She hired me to report on two {{2}} of them, and before long I had a half-time job, which within a few months turned into a full-time job, and a great one at that. A big and influential audience, and lots of time to tell a story.

I have often wondered how my career would have turned out if Doug Bodwell {{3}} had been only 5’ 8”.


Sometime late in 1989 I got a phone call from a person with close connections to the White House. The caller wanted to know if I had any interest in becoming George H.W. Bush’s Education Advisor?

Who, me?

There was a backstory to the offer, which I was familiar with.  The Administration’s first choice, John Chubb, had apparently told one person too many that he would soon be in the White House, riding herd on Lauro Cavazos, the elegant but supposedly ineffectual Secretary of Education. When that bit of gossip showed up in print somewhere, probably in the Washington Post, Secretary Cavazos made it clear to the White House that, if Chubb got the job, he would resign. Well, the Secretary had enough juice to get Chubb booted out before he even got to move in.

The Administration’s second choice was Joe Nathan of Minnesota, who had come to their attention because of his work for the National Governors Association. However, Joe turned down the job because he wanted to stay in his home state with his wife and young children.  I knew this because Joe had asked my advice about the job, life in Washington, schools for his kids, and so on.

So it was clear to me that I wasn’t anyone’s first or second choice. I surmised that I was being considered {{4}} because of my report on school choice in District Four in New York City, a lovely NewsHour piece that celebrated that District’s truly remarkable but under-the-radar accomplishments.   As Producer Tim Smith and I had reported, District Four ranked #32 out of the city’s 32 districts when the leadership (Anthony Alvarado and Sy Fliegel) decided to scrap all their junior high schools.  They invited staff to submit proposals for unique schools organized around themes.  In the end Alvarado and Fliegel approved some interesting ‘themed’ schools; fine arts, back to basics, and maritime junior highs were among those that got to open. Then parents and their children were told, “Take your pick.”

School choice was a huge success, and within a few years, District Four had climbed to all the way to 17th of the 32 districts in academic achievement.  Parents from outside District Four were doing whatever they could to get their children in the schools there.  And if some schools were not chosen by enough parents, they went out of business and were soon replaced by new approaches dreamt up by education entrepreneurs.  Republicans and other conservatives loved the story, and the piece—with me in it—was shown all over the place, including the White House.

I assumed that someone in the Bush Administration connected the dots (erroneously): “Gee, he reported favorably on school choice, so he must be one of us.” {{5}} I was wined and dined by some fancy financial types in penthouse dining rooms and beautiful estates.  Then I got a letter asking me to come to the White House for an interview with the President’s Domestic Policy Advisor, Dr. Roger Porter.

Invitation in hand, I went to see Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.  Could I go over to the other side for a while, I asked, without destroying my future credibility as a reporter?  Sure, both assured me, as long as I didn’t stay too long.

So I trotted off to the White House for a meeting with Dr. Porter.  You may remember that President Bush was our self-styled “Education President.” He had called the first-ever National Education Summit, an event held with great fanfare in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989.  Out of that meeting of 49 of the 50 Governors {{6}} had emerged a commitment to National Education Goals, which I assumed were being developed at the time of my interviews.

The idea of helping set our public schools on a strong path was heady stuff, and the lure of the inner circle was strong. After all, I had been around in 1983 when ‘A Nation at Risk’ warned about the ‘rising tide of mediocrity,’ and now we had a President who seemed genuinely committed to public education in ways that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had not been.  I knew public schools pretty well and told Dr. Porter that I felt I could help shape the goals in ways that would make them sensible and achievable.

“That’s not the job,” he told me.  “We’ve already written the goals. They were pretty much in place before Charlottesville. Your job will be to sell them.”

I don’t remember if he laid them out for me then, but what eventually emerged became known as ‘Goals 2000,’ with 2000 representing the year they were to be achieved; today the eight seem almost quaint {{7}} –and still out of reach:

1. All children in America will start school ready to learn {{8}}.

2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent {{9}}.

3. All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.

4. United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

5. Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

6.  Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

7. The nation’s teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.

8.  Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

OK, I gulped.  I remember telling him that the best way for me to do that would be to write opinion pieces and speeches, and I could do some of that from New York, where I was living.

“Not our way,” Dr. Porter said. And he told me that I would be expected to be in the office early and to stay late, making it clear that brownie points went to those who put in the longest days {{10}}.

“Oh, and another thing,” he said.  “Education is just half of the job. Your portfolio will also include transportation.”

Wait a minute, the Education Advisor to our Education President is supposed to spend only half of his or her time on education?  What’s wrong with this picture?

We agreed to disagree, and I turned down the job before it was ever offered to me.

I was beginning to suspect that hypocrisy in the Nation’s Capital was widespread and bipartisan. Could it be that almost everyone in Washington was focused on images, politics and elections, and that kids and schools would get the leftovers, no matter who was in charge?


[[1]]1. I just looked it up; my program received one of 20 ‘Achievement of Merit’ awards given out that day, and not an actual Ohio State Award; basically we got second prize. For some bizarre reason, the judges categorized “Your Children, Our Children” as a program for children (it wasn’t!) but they did say they considered it ‘excellent with regard to significance, authoritativeness and uniqueness’ and praised its ‘quality research, well-crafted script, flawless pacing and high technical standards.’  That I went all the way to Columbus on my own dime suggests I was pretty desperate for a job.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The first was a piece about public school teachers, including Harry Chandler (who became a friend) and their summer jobs in delis, hardware stores and fast-food restaurants. Producer Mike Joseloff and I flew to McMinnville, Oregon, for the story.  I was accustomed to holding the radio equipment, not standing in front of camera, and had to borrow Mike’s blue knit necktie for my first TV standup.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Douglas F. Bodwell was only 55 when he succumbed to cancer in February, 1998.  Doug and I were about the same age and had started in Washington the same year, 1974.  We became friends, and I came to know him as the soul of generosity, a good friend to everyone who cared about learning.  His death was a great loss in so many ways.   As Director of Education for CPB from 1974 until his death, Doug helped start 22 school television series, including “Reading Rainbow,” “3-2-1 Contact,” and “Square One TV,” (Emmy winners all). He also helped create the Adult Learning Service at PBS, the Learning Link computer network, and the 23-state Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, in addition to being instrumental in the development of The Annenberg Channel.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Years later Joe Nathan told me that he had brought up my name.[[4]]

[[5]]5. At least one Democrat, the great Ted Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools, liked the school choice piece (produced by Tim Smith for the NewsHour). A few months after it aired, Ted wrote, in part, “It is absolutely first rate. Sy Fliegel was a wonderful spokesman, and I have been struck at how often I have heard reference to the show. This one really has made–and continues to make–a difference.”[[5]]

[[6]]6. Trivia question: which Governor did not attend?  Post your answer on the blog to qualify for the prize. (This is how we find out who reads footnotes.)[[6]]

[[7]]7. Notice there’s not one word in any of the 8 goals about test scores!  And Goal #8 encourages social and emotional growth. I say ‘Bravo,’ but wonder what happened to that noble idea.[[7]]

[[8]]8. That phrasing, ‘ready to learn,’ should have told me that these people had no clue about children or learning.  All children are ready to learn, because learning is what we humans do. Many may not be ready for school, but that’s an entirely different thing. It’s the height of arrogance or ignorance (or both) to equate learning and schooling, and people who do not grasp the distinction should not be setting national goals.[[8]]

[[9]]9. It’s nearly 80% now, 14 years after it was supposed to reach 90%.[[9]]

[[10]]10. His Wikipedia entry reports that Roger Porter is now the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard and Master of Dunster House, one of Harvard’s residential colleges.[[10]]

Looking Back (Part 3)

(For the past two weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as a young education reporter. Here’s another segment.)

In my mind’s eye, I can still picture the vast, dimly-lit room. About half the size of a football field, it was filled with men, women and children strapped into wheelchairs or otherwise restrained. If I close my eyes, I can hear the wailing and moaning, rising and falling in a cacophony of animal sounds that I never would have imagined humans were capable of making.

This ‘snake pit’ was in New Mexico’s main facility for handicapped children and adults, the Las Lunas Hospital and Training School. How I ended up there in 1979 with my tape recorder requires some explanation.

When I arrived in Washington in 1974, handicapped {{1}} children were the center of attention. The Congress had become aware of our failure to educate some children simply because of their mental and physical differences.  Out of the estimated eight million handicapped children, one million were receiving no formal education at all; some were kept at home, while others, abandoned by their families, were doomed to spend their lives in institutions like the one in New Mexico. Still more handicapped children went to special schools, which often provided little more than custodial care, or were isolated in regular schools.

Legislation was working its way through House and Senate committees. In the White House, Gerald Ford (our new President after Richard Nixon’s resignation) was hoping it would not pass, because, as a Republican, he felt that education was a state responsibility.

Despite Ford’s objections, Public Law 94-142, “The Education of All Handicapped Children Act,” passed easily in 1975 {{2}}.  It told states they must provide a ‘free and appropriate public education’ for these children {{3}} in what was described as ‘the least restrictive environment.’  Schools must prepare an IEP, an individualized education plan, for every handicapped child, with the involvement of parents, and these IEPs would become the road map that schools would be accountable for following.

Federal money for this new effort was ‘authorized’ but not provided in PL 94-142, because actually setting aside the money is the responsibility of another part of Congress, its appropriations committees.  That would turn out to be a huge problem, and PL 94-142 would become a poster child for what are called ‘unfunded mandates,’ when Washington tells states what to do but doesn’t pay for doing it.

Knowing that a veto would be overridden, President Ford reluctantly signed the bill into law. He showed his displeasure by banning photographers from the official signing.  No pictures exist. No ceremonial pens handed out either, apparently.

PL 94-142 did not become effective immediately but gave the states until September 1, 1978, to be in compliance.

Curious about the states that seemed to be ignoring PL 94-142, in the spring of 1979 I went to New Mexico, one of the holdouts. My 8-year-old son, Josh, was with me, because I had told my children that they could travel with me as soon as they could read (which turned out to be a great incentive).  We stayed for a couple of nights in Albuquerque with the Monzano family. Their Down’s Syndrome son David, 15, and my 8-year-old got along well because they were about the same mental age. I believe that experience helped Josh develop into the open-minded man he is today.

The next day was a different story.  As soon as I heard the dim sounds of keening and wailing, I knew that what was ahead would not be appropriate for an 8-year-old. I told Josh that he should get out his book, and I left him in the waiting room.

Inside was that unimaginable snake pit.  My guide led me toward the distant corner where the ‘retarded’ children were kept. Along the way she stopped to point out an adult in a wheelchair, his arms and legs restrained. His name was Charlie, and he was, she guessed, in his mid- to late-twenties.  Charlie’s neck was puffed up like two softballs, one on each side, the grotesque growths expanding and contracting as he breathed.

My guide explained:  “If you watch him, he’s pulling air in through his mouth into a cavity that he’s probably created over the years, between his carotid arteries and his skin…It’s very self-stimulatory, and this has evolved over the years. This fellow’s been institutionalized ever since he was a young infant, and I guess in earlier days he was considered to have no potential for anything at all. People just left him to his own devices, and he began to self-stimulate.”

I asked her how children ended up in such a horrible place.  Sometimes, she told me, babies and infants were left on the doorstep during the night, abandoned by parents who couldn’t cope.  When she saw my skeptical look, she told me about the Christmas cards.  The institution sent holiday cards to the parents or guardians of all the residents every Christmas, and every year at least half of them came back marked ‘Addressee Moved, Left no Forwarding Address.’

In the children’s corner, she introduced me to Bill, a young man in a wheelchair. He was 21, a quadriplegic who could not speak, the result of cerebral palsy.  But he could move his head, and he smiled as we were introduced. He was wearing a miner’s helmet with a lamp, and on the front of his wheelchair was a blackboard with common words like ‘feel,’ ‘need,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘love,’ and the pronouns in boxes.  Around the edges of the blackboard were the letters of the alphabet, and in opposite corners at the top, the words ‘YES’ and ‘NO.’  On the bottom were the days of the week.  Using his lamp to shine on words and letters, Bill could communicate with others.

Bill was clearly not mentally retarded, but he was in the state hospital that housed the mentally retarded.  I asked her how this could have happened?

“Because Bill is so physically handicapped he could not–okay, there are certain tests that they run through these children or adults that, because he was handicapped, he couldn’t do certain testing.  And so therefore they had diagnosed him at lower functioning.”

What she was saying, basically, is that almost everyone in the institution just assumed that physically disabled individuals were also mentally retarded and therefore just given minimal care, and no education to speak of. Bill got lucky, because one day an attendant thought she saw a light in his eyes, more than just a glimmer of intelligence, and so she and others improvised ways to teach him to read and compose messages.  He had learned rapidly, she told me, and now he could carry on a conversation.

“He’s very aware of everything. In fact, he’s pretty–he can be pretty conniving.  He’s got us all jumping. I think that, if Bill would have been given the educational opportunities, he could be at a very, very high level.”

Then I interviewed Bill, saying aloud into the tape recorder what he signaled with his head lamp. He told me that would rather be on television than just plain old radio, smiling as he wrote those words.  Here’s the end of that interview:

“What do you do on Sundays?”
“Church. You go to church on Sundays?”
“Do you believe in God”
“How many years have you been going to church?”
“Two years. Got it. Thank you, Bill.”

Of course, I could not keep from crying.  Was I shedding tears of joy because this young man’s story demonstrated that the human spirit is unquenchable? Or tears of sorrow that his life, and so many other young lives, have been wasted because society was unable to see beyond physical and mental differences?

In my view, Public Law 94-142 stands as a monument to what is best in our society, our impulse to improve the lives of the least fortunate among us.  We’ve messed it up, of course, by failing to help regular classroom teachers, by rushing into ‘mainstreaming,’ by being too quick to label some kids–especially the poor and minorities, and by allowing some lawyers to exploit the system to get certain students placed in expensive private schools at public expense.

Despite the errors and omissions, however, PL 94-142 and its successors have improved the lives of millions of special needs children and, at the same time, broadened the horizons of children (like my son) fortunate to be ‘temporarily able-bodied,’ as the advocates used to say.


[[1]]1. Back in 1975, the word ‘handicapped’ was not politically incorrect.  Or perhaps those pushing for the legislation, like the Council for Exceptional Children, did not want to waste any energy fighting about words.  Later on ‘handicapped’ would be replaced by words and phrases like ‘special needs,’ ‘disabilities,’ and ‘exceptionalities.’[[1]]

[[2]]2. The vote in the Senate was 83-10. The House tally apparently was not recorded, but the margin was overwhelming and veto-proof.   Here’s the US Department of Education’s page about the law: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/idea35/history/index_pg10.html [[2]]

[[3]]3. The law specified that no more than 12% of a student population could be labeled handicapped, a provision added because some feared schools would label excessively just to get the federal dollars.[[3]]

Looking Back (Part 2)

(Last week I published a piece of my own story, a summer diversion.  Here’s a bit more.)

National Public Radio {{1}} was a wonderful place to work, and I stayed for 8 years, from 1974 to 1982.  Many of the voices you grew to know were there then: Susan Stamberg, Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, Robert Krulwich, Carl Kasell, Scott Simon and Ira Flatow, among others. Back then, one of the producers of “All Things Considered” was a guy named Bob Siegel–you know him as Robert Siegel, for many years a host of ATC.

“Options in Education,” my weekly series, became a fixture on NPR, and we managed to raise money from the Ford Foundation {{2}} and a couple of other places.  With my own weekly 1-hour NPR program and a mandate to report on ‘education,’ I had a pretty big tent to operate in, and I loved just about every moment.

Radio is a far more engaging and intimate medium than television. Listeners hear only a voice and apparently fill out the rest of the picture–height, age, weight, et cetera–in their minds (at least they did so before the internet eliminated secrets).  We would get somewhere between 75-100 letters a week, often very personal.  We answered all the mail.

Susan Stamberg’s office was across the hall, and one day I noticed that she had taped about a half dozen envelopes addressed to her on the door–and each envelope had a different spelling of her name: Stanberg, Steinberg, Stonehead and so on.  As it happened, I regularly received similar envelopes, and so I proposed a contest: a year of collecting different versions of our names, with lunch to the winner {{3}}. After a year, Susan had about 30 variations on her name, but I had nearly 40, including Bob Merrow, Joe Marrow, Ed Merrill (but, alas, never Ed Murrow) and so on. My favorite, however, was “John Moron.”{{4}}

I took full advantage of my freedom to report. I snuck into China with a group of Canadians in early 1977 or 1978, the first NPR reporter to get into that vast country. Because a Canadian physician, Dr. Norman Bethune, had cared for Chairman Mao during the Long March and thereafter, Canadians had special status, while Americans were viewed with suspicion.

Visiting schools and universities in (mostly rural) China was revealing {{5}}. This was in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and we saw and heard first-hand the devastation that spasm of narrow mindedness had wrought.  A lasting memory is of an older man whose hands were misshapen because all his knuckles had been broken.  When we met him, he was working on a farm, but we learned that, prior to Mao’s demand for a Cultural Revolution, he had been the first violinist at a prominent symphony in a big city.  The revolutionaries, some just teenagers, had ‘re-educated’ him to cleanse him of his bourgeois ways…and had broken his hands to guarantee that he wouldn’t backslide.

The Cultural Revolution was officially over–Mao was dead–but its effects were permanent for many.

We arrived early at a few elementary schools, before the teachers had shown up.  What a surprise to find that the classes were quiet, orderly and under way, led by young boys wearing Cub-Scout-like uniforms with bright red bandanas.  Although these ‘Young Pioneers’ were no older than their classmates, everyone followed orders. That simply would not happen in the US.  It was on one level impressive, but scary on another.

As I said, the Cultural Revolution was officially over, but apparently the Young Pioneers had not gotten the news. I’ve often wondered what those young students grew up to become.


In 1976 I did what may have been the first in-depth reporting about gay kids in schools.  I discovered–and reported–that quite often the kids suffered most at the hands of gay teachers, who were forced to be in the closet themselves and often did not dare reach out to children who must have reminded them of themselves at a young age.  Unable to find comfort at schools and often shunned at home, many gay kids dropped out onto the street, where they were exploited by predatory men known as ‘chicken hawks’.

How that program came about has a backstory. I had gone to Boston to be on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools.  I hoped to find some interesting people to interview for my weekly program.

I learned that meetings do not make for great radio, and so I had no material for my weekly program.  A few months earlier I had consulted with my newly formed National Advisory Board (which the organizations giving me money required me to have).  I told the Board that I thought I should be covering dramatic and controversial issues in education, in order to attract national attention. I suggested topics like child abuse and—because it was in the news in Washington—homosexual teachers.  The Board was appalled at the idea and advised me to stick to traditional education issues like teacher training and school finance.

All well and good, but there I was in Boston at a boring meeting with an hour to fill.  So gay teachers it would be, I decided.  Because I had no clue about how to begin, I called the hippest guy I knew at Harvard.

“Larry,” I said, “I want to do some reporting about gay teachers and am hoping you can help me.”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“How did I know what?” I asked in return.

After a while, I figured out that he was gay, and he figured out that I had been unaware until that moment.

Larry introduced me to the underworld of gay men and women.  A teacher himself, he knew many closeted gay educators, and soon I was interviewing them.

The kids have it worse, several told me, and so Larry took me to shelters to meet the young boys.  Though classified as ‘runaways,’ most had in fact been thrown away by their families, because being gay was a mark of shame that disgraced the entire family, at least in the eyes of their fathers.

The 1-hour program we produced, “Gay Teachers, Gay Students” brought my series the national attention I was seeking. (Listen to the program here.)  It was reviewed in the Washington Post and a few other national publications.  In a gay newspaper the writer praised the program by noting that he couldn’t tell from the broadcast whether I was gay or straight.

My Advisory Board was wrong.  Restricting reporting to classroom education and school finance would neither grow our audience nor move people.  From here on out, “Options in Education” and I would define ‘education’ in the broadest possible terms.


Later I spent nearly three months in juvenile institutions (which we were not supposed to call ‘prisons,’ although many were) in several states.  This transformative experience that taught me that, once a bureaucracy has been created, its first obligation becomes to perpetuate itself, whether its original purpose was to save souls or collect trash. That is, I learned to distrust bureaucracies.  {{6}}

I discovered that, once a state had opened a juvenile facility, it needed to keep it full of young offenders to justify the annual expense of keeping it open, keeping adults on the payroll, and so forth.  And they figured out ways to lock kids up, even when the juvenile crime rate went down. They did it by criminalizing behavior that, in times of high juvenile crime, drew a slap on the wrist or a call to the parents.  So,for example, in 1981 Minnesota began locking up kids who ran away from home for a day or two, just to keep the juvenile institution full and the adults working. When the juvenile crime rate was high, those kids were labeled PINS (persons in need of supervision) and were sent home with a (figurative) slap on the wrist and a lecture.


One of my brothers had a mental breakdown when he was 21. Because of that experience, I have been alternately fascinated and repelled by our national attitude toward mental illness. Because of George’s struggles {{7}}, I decided to report on mental health services for children.  I spent about six weeks visiting facilities in Maryland, Texas and a few other states.  What I learned is now old news: Rich kids get therapy; poor kids get powerful drugs. Rich kids are treated for as long as necessary; poor kids are put out on the street when they hit the (limited) number of days that will be covered by insurance.

The 4-part series I produced on that subject was controversial because of the tough issues and because of occasional profanity.  Another lesson I learned: tough issues may not get you thrown off the air, but curse words and descriptions of explicit sex will.

In Texas at a state institution for young children with mental problems, I interviewed children for several days. The interview that is burned in my mind was with a young girl, maybe 9 years old.  We were alone in a fairly large room, sitting on a couch, talking about whatever was on her mind. I wasn’t sure what to ask, so I just listened.  Suddenly she stood up in front of me, smiled and asked, “Do you like me?”  Yes, of course I do, I told her.

“But do you really like me?” She smiled again when I said yes. Then she did an awkward curtsey and lifted her dress up over her head, showing me her underpants.  “Now do you like me?”

I was dumbfounded. I ended the interview right there because I didn’t know what to do or say. A 9-year-old girl was offering me her body.  What sorts of awful things must have been done to her by adults, and for how many years?

And how does one treat the mental problems caused by that abuse?  The answer again depended on family income and/or insurance.  In private mental institutions treatment was individualized and not drug-dependent.  But in state institutions, where children were entitled to a few weeks of treatment and there were not enough counselors, the default treatment was drugs.

I saw that up close at a Texas institution for older children, where (to my amazement) I was allowed to interview whomever I chose. Again, one interview has stayed with me. She was about 15 and back in the institution for the second or third time. It was this interview that got me thrown off the air, because she told me in graphic detail what had happened when she was released when her allotted weeks ran out. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”

We put that on the air, although we sent all the stations an advance warning notice and we put a disclaimer on the air at the beginning of the program.  As it happened, some stations aired my program in the afternoons. After all, it was called “Options in Education,” and what could be more wholesome than education in the afternoon?   Most NPR stations were affiliated with colleges or universities, and a college president in Texas happened to be riding in his car, listening to ‘his’ NPR station, when all of a sudden he heard some girl talking about blow jobs.  In a New York minute, that Texan banned my series from ‘his’ air.

However, I gained a friend from that 4-part series, a more than fair trade. Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood heard the programs on his public radio station in Pittsburgh and wrote me a fan letter!  From then on, whenever he came to Washington, I would take my kids out to see him. In later years we would get together on Nantucket, where we both spent parts of the summer. He was a great man, and I miss him still.

(to be continued, perhaps)


[[1]]1. Now it’s just NPR, not National Public Radio, which may be appropriate, because the N doesn’t apply (I have Irish friends who listen to ATC), it’s heard on the internet by many listeners, and–sadly–NPR is less Public than it was, because of all the corporate funding that targets specific coverage (of ‘Asian Rim issues,’ for example) and chips away at journalistic independence. That’s an issue for us at Learning Matters as well.[[1]]

[[2]]2. And in particular Harold ‘Doc’ Howe II and Edward J. Meade, Jr. [[2]]

[[3]]3. When Ira Flatow learned about the contest, he wanted in. We turned him down.  We knew who would win that contest.[[3]]

[[4]]4. It is possible that this variation was not an error, however, because the letter began, “You are an asshole” and went on from there.[[4]]

[[5]]5. It was also a tense time for me. At any moment my recorder and audio tapes might have been confiscated, because what I was doing had not been approved by any central authority (I hadn’t asked). At every stop a new local guide joined the group, taking over the ‘chaperone’ duties.  I remember their being very friendly but not sophisticated; however, every third day or so, a national guide would join the group, probably to make certain ‘the Canadians’ were being treated well. Whenever a national guide arrived, I stashed my cassettes with two American sisters I had befriended, probably an overreaction on my part. When I returned to Washington, I enlisted the aid of Chinese Government representatives (no Embassy then) and produced a multi-part series about schooling in China for my NPR series.[[5]]

[[6]]6. The NPR series that resulted, “Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice,” received the George Polk Award, and I got to have lunch with I.F. Stone and Kurt Vonnegut.[[6]]

[[7]]7. George took his own life in 1971, after a long struggle with mental illness.  He was only 23 years old. We felt helpless when he was being treated, and his five siblings and our parents struggled for years to understand his decision.  Acknowledging and then coming to terms with my own anger was as tough as dealing with my sense of having failed him.

His suicide occurred when I was in graduate school in Cambridge.  The family gathered on Nantucket to mourn and seek comfort.  The following year I moved my family to Nantucket, where my other brothers and I built a house with our own hands, an exercise in physical/emotional therapy and family bonding.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation there and finished the Harvard program in record time.[[7]]

Looking Back (Part 1)

Although I spend most of my waking hours working on or thinking about the stories we’re trying to tell, I have also been retracing the paths that have led to the perch I now occupy, 40 years later.  What follows is a trip down memory lane.

I got my first reporting job in the fall of 1961 with the Salina (KS) Journal. Less than five weeks later I was fired.  Here’s how that happened. Because I accomplished very little my first two years of college and had a declining GPA as evidence, I concluded that I would be wasting my time and my parents’ money if I stayed in college. With their reluctant blessing, I dropped out of Dartmouth. In my own mind, I would be Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” in search of an identity.

Because I had worked for my high school and college newspapers, I decided to spend my year away from college working for a newspaper. And I would do it ‘out west,’ which, to this Connecticut Yankee, began on the other side of the Mississippi River. Once I crossed that mighty river, I would begin my new career.

My job search started with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I confidently approached the personnel office.  They politely laughed me out of the room, and the city.  It couldn’t have helped my cause that I had spent the previous night sleeping in my car at a nearby private golf course, although I had brazenly walked in and showered in the men’s clubhouse. (I didn’t need to shave in those days.)

For the next few weeks I went from town to town, applying at the local weekly (which–hard to believe today–most towns had in 1961).  Each time I would introduce myself to the owner/editor-in-chief, “I’m John Merrow, I’m taking a year off from college, and I would like to write for you.” Each time I was sent on my way.

At newspaper number 16 or 17, The Salina (KS) Journal, I made the decision to lie. “Hi, I’m John Merrow,” I said to Glenn Williams, the managing editor. “I just graduated from Dartmouth College, and I would like to be a reporter on your fine paper.”

He hired me.

Of course, I knew it was dishonest, but I rationalized thusly: “Once I get my first big scoop, I will go into the Mr. Williams’ office and tell him the truth. He will be so impressed that he won’t object, probably will give me a raise.”  That’s what I told myself….

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams figured out that I was a callow youth long before I came close to a scoop, and he fired me. Properly suspicious, he called one of my references, “Professor David Barker,” actually my college roommate. In those days, the only phones were in the hall, so I had given my boss the number for the 4th floor of my dormitory,Gile Hall. I can only imagine the conversation when Mr. Williams asked to speak to “Professor Barker.” {{1}}

Game over….

He did, however, get me a job with another paper, The Leavenworth (KS) Times.  Leavenworth was (and probably still is) a murky, depressing town whose economy revolved around crime. It’s the home of four prisons, not just the Federal Penitentiary made famous by Hollywood. Just outside Leavenworth are the state men’s and women’s prisons, and nearby Fort Leavenworth is the home of the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the toughest Army prison of all. I had the prison beat, a dream.

Before long I got fired again, although this time it was a badge of honor. It was an open secret that Leavenworth’s police chief was on the take.  He had to be: he lived in a very expensive home and drove a brand new Cadillac.  Another reporter who was older and wiser and I agreed that was an outrage, and so we decided to expose him. First, we figured out how the scam worked.  The chief’s brother-in-law had a garbage collection company, which–conveniently–collected trash only from the town’s bars and similar establishments.  Those bars were notorious for serving underage soldiers from the Fort.  Prostitution was a thriving business too, and the pimps and whores were probably paying protection to the chief as well.

It was heady stuff. Byron (last name lost to memory) and I staked out the bars, followed the garbage trucks, took pictures and schemed about how we could get evidence on tape.  Byron was the brains and guts of our effort, and so when the powers-that-be got wind of what we were up to, they came down hard, and he took the brunt. One night all four tires of his car were slashed, someone threw a brick through his apartment window, and tough guys threatened his wife and children.  I got some nasty phone calls and occasional jostling on the street, but that was all.

I wish I could say that the good guys won and that the chief was exposed, but it didn’t happen that way.  Byron and I were fired and sent on our way. (I remember that Byron’s wife was relieved.)  The police chief probably died rich and happy, and as crooked as ever.

I was upset about leaving the girl I had met but otherwise excited about whatever was coming next. I sold my car and hitchhiked around the country for the next four or five months, stopping to work whenever I ran low on funds. I went to spring training in Florida, spent nights in college fraternities, church-run missions and even a jail, got propositioned by women and men quite often, turned down a chance to ‘work’ as a gigolo in New Orleans, went to opening day at the Seattle World’s Fair, and crisscrossed the country, using only my thumb.

As I had promised my parents, I returned to Dartmouth in the fall and graduated in the spring of 1964, one year behind my classmates.


After graduating from Dartmouth, I taught high school English on Long Island for two years, earned my MA in American Studies at Indiana University, taught at a Black college in Virginia for two years, earned a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lived on Nantucket Island for nearly two years, and then, in 1974, took a job with an education ‘think tank’ in Washington, DC.  I figured out pretty quickly that I was not temperamentally (or intellectually!) suited for sitting around thinking.  That realization led me to National Public Radio.

I knocked on the door of the headquarters of NPR, then at 20th and M in Northwest Washington, sometime early in 1974. The only thing I remember about the meeting is the reaction to my announcing that my boss had given me a budget of $10,000 to “get the word out about education.”  I was all but embraced.

NPR was largely unknown at the time. I know I had never even heard of it when I moved my family to Washington, but, then again, we had been living on an island where most of the world’s news went unremarked.  But it turns out, most people in Washington and everywhere else were also unaware of its existence.  It was necessary, I learned, to explain to people that NPR was ‘like PBS, only without pictures.’

NPR had gone on the air in the spring of 1971. When I showed up, it had a flagship news program, “All Things Considered,” and a couple of strong music programs, “Jazz Alive” and “Voices in the Wind.”  It also had a catchall daily series, “Options,” where it stuck all sorts of programs, and that’s where NPR sent me.

I ended up recording an interview with two school finance experts, who explained—at great length and in too much detail–how the system worked.  The producers who had been assigned to help me decided to make the conversation into–I still cannot believe this–two 1-hour programs, which they called “Where the Money Comes from” and “Where the Money Goes.”  Even then I realized the interview was boring, but NPR needed material to fill the hungry maw, and so I made my national debut in what must be one of the dullest programs ever recorded.

Luckily for me, NPR encouraged me to make another program. As I remember it, this time we decided I would go ‘in the field’ with a tape recorder.  Pell Grants were in the news, so I called the office of Senator Claiborne Pell (D, RI) and asked for an interview.  “Sure,” his press guy said, “Just send over the questions you’re going to ask.”  I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know enough to tell him to take a hike.  Instead, I wrote up some questions and sent them over.  A few days later I dutifully showed up at the Senator’s office, introduced myself, set up my tape recorder, and asked my first question.

Senator Pell never even looked up.  He just read the answer off a piece of paper he was holding.  Question two, same thing.  And so on.  I remember being bewildered. Only later did I get angry, probably to cover my embarrassment.

I learned my lesson: never again would I submit questions in advance.  And, if I could help it, I wouldn’t interview career politicians. {{2}}

And so I went on the road, carrying only a small reel-to-reel tape recorder (which, I later learned, was the same model that President Nixon was using in the oval office to secretly record his conversations).  My first trip was to Kanawha County, West Virginia, where angry parents were burning textbooks in an effort to keep their children from learning about evolution and other ‘leftist’ ideas.  I can still see and hear them belting out John Denver’s “Country Roads,” their theme song.  Rather than mock them for their ‘backward’ views, I sat in their kitchens and listened to (and recorded) what they had to say. (Listen to that program here.)

It was a great learning experience for me: most people have stories to tell, but rarely do those in power deign to listen.  All I had to do was turn on the tape recorder and every once in a while say, “Please tell me more,” and I would end up with audio gold.

(to be continued)

[[1]] 1. Not only did I get fired, but Mr. Williams was sitting on the throne when he flushed me.  It was the end of the day, and I went to the men’s room to wash up before heading out.  As I was washing my hands, I heard Mr. Williams call from behind a door, “I need to talk to you, John. I called Professor Barker today.”  [[1]]

[[2]]2. Luckily I did not take a vow to never interview politicians, because over the years I have spent some time with thoughtful men and women in politics.  Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and Representatives George Miller and Al Quie come immediately to mind.

Cabinet appointees are also political creatures, whatever else they may be.  I have managed to interview every sitting Secretary of Education, beginning with Shirley Hufstedler, who gave up a lifetime appointment to the Federal bench to become the first Secretary, under Jimmy Carter.

My own particular favorite among Secretaries is former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, a gentleman with a steel backbone.  Like the late Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Governor Riley made you feel valued.

Years ago my Dad taught me to watch the way people treat waiters, clerks and others they perceive to be their underlings. If they treat them disrespectfully, he warned, you might be next.  I say all this because I wanted to admire Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s tough-talking Secretary of Education.  After all, he had dated Janis Joplin, knew the names of Buddy Holly’s backup singers and other rock and roll trivia, and was willing to speak truth to power about self-indulgent college students.  But he also displayed two faces, two personalities.  When the lights were on and the camera was rolling, Secretary Bennett was the picture of civility.  Once the the lights and recording equipment were off, however, I saw him behave rudely to the crew that had just made him look good.  That taught me a valuable lesson, a twist on the adage about the measure of character being how one behaves when no one is looking. In this day and age, it’s how one behaves when he’s not on camera. [[2]]